He wrote more calmly about totalitarianism than about the accomplices and the deniers of its crimes. Stalin was a thug, Lenin a maniac. But why did so many sophisticated, educated Westerners ignore or excuse what was happening? He harried and skewered fellow-travellers and wishful thinkers, reserving particular scorn for apologist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan admired him. Critics called him a rabid anti-communist. He enjoyed teasing them, coining “Conquest’s Laws”—the first being that, generally speaking, everyone is “reactionary” on things he knows about.
When the Soviet archives opened, his meticulous work was utterly vindicated. His books were published in Russia, and he brought out updated editions in English. Mulling a new title for “The Great Terror”, his pal Kingsley Amis suggested “I told you so, you fucking fools”. He preferred derision to self-righteousness, summarising Soviet Communism in a much-quoted limerick:
There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
The kind of people who overlooked such trifles, he reckoned, were also willing to scrub their minds on other issues. He despised much modern literary criticism: it used “important” freely but shunned “beautiful”. For him, the great pursuit was the “deep blue clarities of a delighting mind”. He wrote: “Just as it is people who think they have discovered the laws of history who have, in our time, inflicted our major public catastrophes so—in a lesser field, or at least one in which the results are not so literally bloody—it is those who think they have discovered the laws of literature who have been the destroyers.”